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Class work: New York intellectual labor and the creation of postmodern American fiction, 1932-1962

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Title: Class work: New York intellectual labor and the creation of postmodern American fiction, 1932-1962
Author(s): Henn, Robert
Director of Research: Berube, Michael
Doctoral Committee Chair(s): Maxwell, William J.
Doctoral Committee Member(s): Berube, Michael; Parker, Robert D.; Oberdeck, Kathryn J.
Department / Program: English
Discipline: English
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: Ph.D.
Genre: Dissertation
Subject(s): postmodernism New York Intellectuals campus novel Lionel Trilling Mary McCarthy Tess Slesinger Vladimir Nabokov bureaucracy Trotskyism liberalism
Abstract: This dissertation argues that American literary postmodernism was profoundly shaped by midcentury intellectual workers’ resistance to the bureaucratization of their labor. An Introduction establishes the significance of the dissertation to debates over both postmodernism and the New York Intellectuals, and summarizes each chapter’s contribution to the overall argument. Part I, “Class Unconsciousness,” then offers three chapters that detail the birth, growth, and eventual eclipse of a theory of “brain workers” as a class in the labor-radical circles of the New York Intellectuals. In the 1930s and 40s, authors Tess Slesinger, Mary McCarthy, and Lionel Trilling sounded an increasingly shrill alarm over what they imagined was a pro-Soviet intellectual class of bureaucratic mental workers in America. I argue that while their class-conscious fictions laid foundations for postmodernism’s arrival decades later, their increasingly indiscriminate hostility toward a class-conscious left nevertheless also hindered later recognition of the intellectual and class origins of postmodernism. Part II, “The Groves of Postmodernism,” begins with an Interlude that offers a theory of the literary and sociological meanings of the postwar campus novel in America. Three final chapters then explain how the antibureaucratic academic fictions of Trilling, McCarthy, and Vladimir Nabokov helped create the characteristic themes and even forms of this emerging genre—and thence of postmodernism itself, whose early canon includes such campus novels as Nabokov’s _Pale Fire_ (1962) and John Barth’s _Giles Goat-Boy_ (1966). I contend that these authors’ liberal satire of academia, influenced by the earlier theory of an intellectual class, was rooted in a passionate desire for intellectuals’ autonomy, and a corresponding critique of their bureaucratic labor in the academy. Thus I argue that the early postmodern, even for such avowedly apolitical writers as Nabokov, may be read as the protest of mental and professional workers against the bureaucratic confines of their work. Against recent accusations that postmodernism represented a “libertarian turn” colluding with the New Right, a brief Epilogue then insists on the importance of this early and antibureaucratic postmodernism to the successes of the New Left in the 1960s, as well as to present-day academic workers seeking their own autonomy in a rapidly proletarianizing workplace. This dissertation thus excavates a history of postmodernism’s labor-left origins, thereby challenging familiar accounts of postmodernism’s roots in a 1950s or 1980s political conservatism, as well as notions of the New York Intellectuals’ hostility toward or irrelevance to postmodernism. Along the way, it suggests postmodernism’s continuing relevance to white-collar anxiety and academic activism.
Issue Date: 2012-06-27
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/32054
Rights Information: Copyright 2012 Robert Henn
Date Available in IDEALS: 2012-06-27
Date Deposited: 2012-05
 

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